Pistons have luxury of time with rookie Ellenson

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — During the years of futility the past decade, the Pistons had a series of lottery picks who were fixtures in the starting lineup.

From Greg Monroe and Brandon Knight to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Stanley Johnson, all the first-round picks from 2010-15 were top-10 selections and saw significant playing time early.

Last season, the Pistons reached the playoffs, and their first-round pick, Henry Ellenson, was a different case. Projected as a top-10 pick, he dropped to No. 18. And, Stan Van Gundy didn’t mind getting premium value at No. 18.

But by adding power forward Jon Leuer in free agency, Van Gundy is able to allow Ellenson to develop without having to use him too early. The logjam at power forward — Leuer, Marcus Morris and Tobias Harris — means there’s little pressure on Ellenson to produce immediately.

“The hard part for him is it’s Marcus and Tobias and Jon, so it’s three really good players ahead of him, experienced guys who have been out there,” Van Gundy said of the 6-foot-11 Ellenson, who played one year at Marquette. “It’s tough for him now. It’s not like he goes out here every day and those guys are in a different league.

“He can hold his own, particularly on the offensive end. There’s nobody having an easy time stopping him.”

At 19 years old, Ellenson already has made an impression on the staff with his ability to shoot from the outside and score off the dribble.

“My versatility has been what I’ve been able to show early,” Ellenson said. “It’s nice having a coach who has big visions for you. ... I’m not anywhere near where I want to be — it’s only preseason.”

Ellenson showed flashes during the summer he’s more than just a traditional big man who plunks down in the paint and waits for the ball. He showed good ballhandling and outside shooting, helping the Pistons reach the championship game in the Orlando Summer League.

Van Gundy said this week Ellenson has been as impressive during practices with the regular rotation, hitting shot after shot — and raising eyebrows when he missed.

But it’s those veterans who also have been working with Ellenson to speed up his learning process.

“Each one has pulled me to the side to let me know defensive things or on offense what to do,” Ellenson said. “I worked out with Marcus this summer and he showed me some mid-post, face-up stuff. They’ve been taking me under their wing and showing me the ropes.”

With so much depth at the position, Van Gundy said he doesn’t envision Ellenson cracking the rotation immediately, but he could see some time with the Pistons affiliate in the D-League, the Grand Rapids Drive, to keep him sharp.

It’s the same route Darrun Hilliard, a second-round pick last season, had his rookie year. Reggie Bullock also spent time with the Drive before perking up the rotation late during the playoff push.

“As the year goes on, you never know,” Van Gundy said. “He’s getting better all the time. ... Generally your opportunity will come and I have a pretty good confidence that he’ll be ready when it comes.”

For Morris, there’s little doubt Ellenson can reach his goals — and maybe force Van Gundy’s hand to get some playing time this year.

Although the offensive game is burgeoning already, when the defensive side catches up, it’ll be a formidable combination.

“(Ellenson) is going to be a hell of a player,” Morris said. “I could tell from the first day till now he’s making a major difference each day. He’s coming out and he’s impressive, to be 19 years old.

“I don’t know if he’s better than me at 19, but he’s right there. He’s one of the best 19-year-olds coming in. Before Stanley came in, I said that about him. He’s going to be a helluva player.”